Idaho community college trains students for aerospace

Forty students are enrolled this fall in the Aerospace Center for Excellence at North Idaho College.

THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEWDecember 10, 2013 

The fast-growing aerospace industry needs skilled workers, so the college has opened a training center in Hayden to prepare students for those manufacturing and maintenance jobs.

They are learning composite materials fabrication and repair, which ties into much of the aerospace business in Kootenai and Bonner counties and nearby Spokane.

Over the next two years, the college will roll out three more aerospace programs: quality assurance and nondestructive testing; manufacturing and machining operations; and airframe maintenance. Total enrollment is expected to hit 80 to 100 students.

Among those in the first class is Marcus Torres, 27, a Coeur d’Alene High School graduate who earned a photojournalism degree at the college last May. Now he plans to earn a two-year degree in advanced manufacturing and use those skills to become a mobile repairman specializing in fiberglass and carbon-fiber parts. He wants to get his pilot’s license, too, so he can fly to jobs.

“It gets you on all levels — intellectually, you get your hands dirty working with material, see how different materials lay up, their properties,” Torres says. “It’s so interesting.”

The aerospace center was established with a $2.97 million federal grant and is expected to create 520 new jobs by 2015, with the average salary estimated at $43,500, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

Twenty-five aerospace businesses have sprung up in North Idaho alone, says North Idaho College President Joe Dunlap. They are part of an industry that anticipates sharp growth in passengers, cargo and airliner replacement in the next 20 years, he says.

The businesses include Hayden-based Empire Airlines, a FedEx feeder carrier, and Empire Aerospace, which performs heavy maintenance on regional-size turboprop planes.

Empire has trained many employees on the job or sent them out of state to get the necessary skills, CEO Tim Komberec says. Now that training will happen practically next door.

“We have a major interest in all four of the (college) programs,” Komberec says. “This stuff’s all in our wheelhouse. This is very exciting for us.”

The composites curriculum was evaluated by Boeing and the International Association of Machinists union, and the one-year certificate is a recognized qualifier for two IAM/Boeing apprenticeships.

Students will be equipped to work for local companies such as Hayden-based Unitech Composites and Structures, which supplies parts for commercial and military aircraft; Triumph Composite Systems, which makes aircraft parts near Spokane International Airport; and Aerocet Inc., a Priest River maker of composite floats for seaplanes.

These skills also are in growing demand in other types of manufacturing, from automobiles to recreational equipment such as tennis rackets and snowboards, says Trevor Budge, a composites technology instructor at North Idaho College.

“You can build anything with composites,” Budge says.

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scottm@spokesman.com

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